This week the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to release another status report on Iran’s nuclear program that is expected to raise new troubling concerns. It comes on the heels of the major report last fall in which the IAEA described a comprehensive nuclear weapons development program that Iran secretly conducted up until 2003 and in which the IAEA made clear its belief that Iran had continued with some of those clandestine, illegal bomb efforts after 2003. The new report, due Wednesday, will say, according to an article in last Friday’s New York Times, that Iran has made steady progress in building a stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium and almost certainly has been obliterating evidence of nuclear-weapon-explosives testing at Parchin.
One of the most damaging allegations in last fall’s IAEA report was the claim that Iran had built a large steel cylinder at Parchin, in which the shaped explosives for an implosion atomic bomb were tested. (Configuration of such explosive “lenses” is well-known to be one of the trickiest aspects of bomb design, and one of the aspects where extensive real-world testing is most essential.) In recent months, satellite imagery of Parchin has strongly suggested that Iran is systematically bull-dozing the Parchin site, which the IAEA has sought and is still seeking to access. Meanwhile, Iran has been installing more centrifuges at the Fordow installation near the holy city of Qom (photo), which is deep underground and considered invulnerable to air attack.
Summarizing the situation, David E. Sanger of the Times says that despite international sanctions and sabotage by Israel and the United States, “Iran has made steady progress in producing enriched uranium in recent years — from about one bomb’s worth when Mr. Obama took office in 2009 to the equivalent of about five bombs’ worth today.”
What Sanger means, of course, is not that Iran has (or had) the equivalent of five bombs’ worth (or one bomb’s worth) of weapons-grade material, but that it has (and had) enough medium-enriched uranium ready to be further enriched to weapons-grade for so and so many bombs. He’s not to be blamed and maybe should be thanked for that somewhat casual formulation. That because in making it, Sanger has brought to light a serious danger in the current situation: Namely that it will become the stuff of demagoguery and put to use in a presidential campaign in which the name of the game will be to portray oneself as tougher and more unyielding on Iran than the other guy would be.
The risk here is much larger than the partisan question of whether, in this scenario, your preferred candidate or the other one will gain more advantage. The really big danger is that both candidates will end up saying things that lock them into intemperate positions and limit that freedom of diplomatic action once one of them is in office during the next presidential term.
This is not to belittle the gravity of the current situation. Negotiations between Iran, the IAEA and the six principal negotiating countries have not been going well, as the most casual newspaper reader will have noticed. While stonewalling the IAEA, Iran has made steady headway in producing 20-percent enriched uranium, greatly shortening the time it would need to make that uranium weapons-grade. Having announced last month its interest in building nuclear-powered submarines, Iran appears to be preparing the ground to argue that it is legally entitled under the Nonproliferation Treaty to make weapons-grade uranium.
If Iran is to be persuaded at this late date to reverse course, the most aggressive and imaginative diplomacy will be called for. The meeting of the non-aligned countries this week in Tehran, and new diplomatic initiatives by Egypt, suggest that getting more players involved might boost prospects for a positive outcome. In any case, the next president of the United States will want to be in a position to seize any opportunity and not find his hands tied by statements made in the heat of partisan battle.